Skating Backwards

By Sandy Nichols Ward

January 11, 2007 (Revised 1/17/07)


A fragile fringe of ice along the riverÕs edge today caught the cold sunlight and my attention. Not level, but slanted steeply from shore to open water, the ice indicated a drop in river level since last nightÕs freezing. The ice was anchored around trees and shrubs recently flooded, now left behind by receding water.


I was merely driving past on some mundane errand of the day. This rare sight, this skirt of sloped ice shining in the sun, brought a smile to my face and instantly awakened a childhood memory. ThatÕs how I learned to skate backwards! It wasnÕt fragile ice, but thick slabs of slanted ice on a pond in my hometown of Danvers, Massachusetts.


The old Ice Pond on Ferncroft Road was a favorite skating place for my parents and their friends. They brought us there as young children. We sat on the huge rectangular blocks of what had been, we were told, foundations of an Ice House. We put on our skates and ventured timidly out on the ice while our parents skated rapidly, racing around the small pond or playing an informal game of ice hockey with their friends. I was not much of a skater in those days and mostly remember cold feet, tired feet, and an impatience for my parents to finish their games and take us back to a warm house.


The pond was quite shallow and surrounded by trees that shaded it, so the water froze early and stayed frozen late in the season. The ice was usually thick, six or eight inches or more. Sometimes it was opaque and cloudy; sometimes clear as glass, a window on the world below. I loved looking down through clear ice to see bubbles trapped inside or plant life below. IÕd lie in my snowsuit with my face down on the ice, peering below to see if any bugs or fish might swim by. Sometimes I experimented with skating, trying to imitate my motherÕs grace or speed. Natural obstacles, such as leaves or sticks that had settled onto the ice and frozen into place, challenged me. My parents were agile, quick to jump over such obstacles; I was less steady on ice skates and more prone to fall. I had not yet learned to turn quickly or to reverse and skate backwards.


I learned to skate backwards the year that the ice tipped. Huge slabs of thick ice were tilted up around the edge of that Ice Pond. The water underneath must have drained away, leaving the frozen surface to sag into an ice bowl. My sister and I had fun clambering up the sides, trying to reach the top edge and hang on for a while before letting go and sliding down, usually on our knees or bottoms. But with ice skates on, I discovered that it was possible, if I aimed my feet just right, to glide back down standing on my skates. Wow! I felt so clever! Skating backwards was easy when all I had to do was let go and allow gravity to bring me down the slope and out onto the level ice in the center. Once started, I found I could continue moving backwards by slight movements of my skates. Thus I learned the art of skating backwards, thanks to an unusual slope of ice.


And that is why a glimpse of slanted ice on the riverbank brought a big smile to my face.